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MY TURN: Bringing transparency to the cost of college with a Career Transparency Act

by CHRIS CARGILL/Guest Opinion
| February 26, 2024 4:40 PM

Is the cost of college still worth the price?

According to the Education Data Initiative, the average student loan debt in the United States currently totals $37,338. The average student borrows more than $30,000 to pursue a bachelor’s degree. And more than 45 million Americans have student loan debt.

High school students considering whether it is worth it to pursue a college degree usually consider two major questions: how much debt will I incur, and how much will I make when I finally achieve graduation and a career? Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to easily find the answers, which can result in students taking out large college loans for careers that might not provide the adequate salary to pay down the loans.

Many colleges and universities have been criticized for offering classes and degrees that put students little in the way of career benefit. At the University of Houston, you can obtain a degree in foresight — or the ability to predict the future. At Georgetown, you can take classes called “Philosophy and Star Trek.”

A recent survey by the Wall Street Journal found that 56% of Americans believe a four-year college degree isn’t worth the cost. Depending on the career choice, they may be right. Attendance at universities throughout the region and nation show precipitous declines.

Between 1963 and 2021, cost of attendance at a four-year college rose 165%. Increases can be found in both public institutions, where the average cost is now $19,374, and private, where students can now pay $45,920. Interestingly, private, for profit colleges have been successful in lowering their costs, from a peak of $31,709 in 2004, to $27,470 today.

It is not a given that the cost of college must increase, however. Consider the example being set by Purdue University.

Purdue University has kept its tuition frozen for 13 years — at less than $10,000 per year. Former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels — who became president of Purdue — says it has been a top priority to keep the number affordable for families. As a result, student loan borrowing at Purdue has decreased by 40% since 2012.

Now, 11 graduating classes at Purdue have never experienced a tuition increase.

Daniels says the key has been an effort to manage expenses, and asking alumni for more contributions. But as Purdue has kept tuition frozen, student enrollment has increased, allowing the university to more easily balance its books.

While we are hopeful that other higher education officials can learn from the Purdue example by adopting policies that make tuition more affordable, policymakers can also help provide data that informs a student’s decision on which colleges to attend and degrees to pursue. One option to make the decision easier is a concept Mountain States Policy Center is calling a Career Transparency Act or CTA.

The CTA would require the state to make a variety of statistics and information publicly available to high school students considering a college path. The information would include:

• A listing of the state’s future workforce needs;

• Starting wage information and education requirements for the top 25 high demand jobs in the state;

• A listing of the 40 baccalaureate degree programs with the highest average annual wages following graduation;

• A listing of the 20 associate degree programs with the highest average annual wages following graduation;

• The cost of obtaining the degree or certificate at state institutions of higher education, including;

- Tuition and fees

- Room and board

- Books and supplies

- Transportation

- Other costs

• The median wage earned by students who graduated with the certificate or degree;

• The median student debt of those who graduated with the certificate or degree;

• Progress on repaying student loans by those who graduated with the certificate or degree; and

• The percentage of students who withdraw from the institution and do not enroll in the program at another higher education institution.

With this information readily available, students could better understand whether the long-term career benefit would be worth such a large financial burden.

Policymakers may not be able to control all college costs, but they can help inform better career and financial decisions by students considering higher ed. Identifying workforce needs, a listing of wages, clear information about the cost of obtaining a degree, and more should all be made readily available via a Career Transparency Act.

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Chris Cargill is the president of Mountain States Policy Center, an independent free market think tank based in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Eastern Washington. Online at mountainstatespolicy.org.